If you have a Lab, you’ve probably had to deal with the dreaded itching and licking that comes with allergy season. Or perhaps your Labby has chronic ear/ skin infections year-round? Allergies can be frustrating and there’s a lot of (mis)information out there. So, what’s a conscientious Lab parent to do? Well as always, don’t forget to talk to your veterinarian. Here’s some information to help you know where to start….


First things first. Does your dog have fleas??? Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is a very common cause of allergies in dogs. Year round flea control is essential in preventing flea infestations, especially in the southern US. (Did you know it takes 3 months of preventives to get rid of an existing flea infestation in a home?!)

No fleas?

Seasonal Allergies

Determining if your pet has seasonal or non-seasonal allergies will go a long way towards helping your vet diagnose his or her underlying allergy. Seasonal allergies are most often caused by atopy, an allergic reaction to allergens either inhaled or absorbed by the skin, while non-seasonal itchiness/ infections are more likely to be caused by food allergies. This being said, probably some dogs are a combination of the two. Either way the goal of treatment will be to get the dog under his or her “threshold of itchiness.”

Canine Allergy Testing

If you are unsure if your dog is seasonal or non, or if your dog has a history of year round infections, your vet may recommend diagnostic testing. This may include cytology (to check for bacterial and yeast infections, which are common secondary invaders when skin is inflamed from underlying allergies), skin scrapes (to check for mites), a good ear canal exam (to check for possible underlying causes of chronic infections) and/ or a food trial.

Labrador Food Allergies

A food trial is the only reliable test to check for food allergies. There are blood tests out there, but they are not thought to be specific enough, because there are many immune-mediated components to food allergies that can not be measured in the blood. Food trials require you to feed a single food (single protein and grain source) for about 8 weeks. Strictness is key here because any “cheats” (treats, “people food,” bones, even kitty poo… those of you with cats understand!) make the test invalid. It is also important that the food trial be done with a protein that your Lab has never eaten before, so diet history is key here. If your Lab improves with the food trial, VOILA!, problem solved. You can now either stay on this diet and reap the benefits, or you can start challenging with new foods to figure out what your Labby is allergic to and therefore what foods to avoid in the future.

If your dog is not responsive to the food trial or is seasonal in nature, you have options…

Veterinarians will usually start by recommending treatment with “band aids.” These include antihistamines, fish oil, soothing baths, even antibiotics, antifungals and/ or steroids when deemed appropriate by your vet.

The down side of these treatments is that if your pet is on steroids too frequently, they could have some nasty side-effects. In this case of chronic itchiness, uncontrollable by antihistamines or very occasional steroid use, your vet may recommend another drug (Cyclosporine) to suppress the immune response to allergens, without the long-term side effects of steroids or may recommend skin allergy testing.

Skin allergy testing is a process by where small amounts of allergens are injected under the skin and your dog’s response is measured to figure out what he or she is allergic to. The end result allows us to create allergy shots specific for your Lab. Allergy shots are given at by you at home, and just like human allergy shots, mitigate the allergic response over time. There is also a new study from the University of Wisconsin, which suggests that placing allergy drops designed for your dog under his or her tongue may also be effective for those dogs who react poorly to the vaccine version (or for needle phobic owners).

Still have questions? Talk to your vet! He or she should be happy to help.


Dr. Erin Hernandez Horner, DVM graduated from the University of Georgia in 2004 and then went on to obtain her DVM in 2008. She is currently an associate veterinarian at Brookhaven Animal Hospital   [line-sep]